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'The night before I put the penalty in a different place. I changed my mind against Spain'

David Connolly on the good and bad times he experienced playing for Ireland.

David Connolly scored nine goals in 41 caps for Ireland.
David Connolly scored nine goals in 41 caps for Ireland.
Image: INPHO

OF ALL THE teams Ireland have endured bad fortune against over the years, Switzerland must be among the standouts.

The Irish management careers of both Mick McCarthy (in his first spell) and Brian Kerr ended with disappointing results against the Swiss in games that either killed off qualifying hopes or made the prospect of reaching a major tournament very difficult.

At the weekend, The42 spoke to Thomas Butler, whose short-lived international career ended with a game against Switzerland.

Similarly, David Connolly would also win the last of his 41 caps against the side known as the ‘Rossocrociati’ (Red Crosses), albeit in a different game to Butler.

In those previous 40 caps though, there was no shortage of highs and lows, with nine goals enough to put Connolly on the all-time top scorers list, level with Roy Keane, Liam Brady, Clinton Morrison and Kevin Sheedy, and just behind James McClean’s 10.

Before international recognition though, he grew up a normal kid who happened to be obsessed with football.

In a YouTube interview from a few years back, Connolly recalled how André Hoekstra, a coach he worked with at Excelsior, urged him to “fly a kite” or engage in some kind of hobby outside of football.

“I struggled with my time off,” he recalled. “What do I do with my spare time apart from football?

“I enjoy my football and never take it for granted. I’ve never been a drinker of alcohol or late-night parties, whatever it may be.

[André] could be right. Maybe I did need to learn to fly a kite. But I never did.”

Born in England and growing up in Willesden, his parents went to Britain in search of work, but Connolly always considered himself Irish.

“I was the first one born in England, as happens, when there was no real work at home. Dad was one of many brothers. Only one of them needed to work the farm, so the rest came to England to find their way.

I was probably playing and watching more Gaelic than I was football when I was a child. My dad played in minor All-Irelands — him and his brothers are big into hurling and Gaelic [football].

“I started playing football at the same time. I didn’t really think about anything else. You were living in England, but everything else was kind of Irish. I lived in a very Irish place. It was the norm. You went to Irish pubs. That was just how it worked really.”

And did he ever consider seriously pursuing GAA?

“No, but I played it all the time. I was watching my dad down in Ruislip, which was the main GAA ground. 

“Even now, I played Gaelic with my sons today, just after school, they love it. It’s a great sport.

“It was just part and parcel [of growing up], you’d always have a hurling stick in the car or wherever.”

jim-beglin As a youngster, Connolly wrote to Ireland and Liverpool player Jim Beglin. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A big Liverpool fan on account of their Irish players, such as Ray Houghton and Steve Staunton among others, Connolly wrote to Jim Beglin as a kid and ended up getting two tickets for a game.

“I’ve never really said it to him. He sent back two tickets, which was incredible. I went up to Anfield with my dad, I went to the game. I didn’t ask for the tickets, but it was absolutely fantastic. I still remember opening the envelopes.”

Aged 18, Connolly made his Ireland debut on 29 May 1996. It was Mick McCarthy’s third game game in charge and third successive defeat, as the Boys in Green lost 1-0 to Portugal in a friendly at Lansdowne Road.

“In the youth age groups, I played with Watford and we played Millwall quite a lot. They had Ben Thatcher, Mark Kennedy — quite a good youth team.

We’d always give them a good game, but [then-Millwall manager] Mick McCarthy, as often happens with manager of clubs, they’d often watch the youth teams, then manage the [first-team] game. So he was obviously watching when we played Millwall. I think I did quite well and scored a few.    

“A year later, I was in the first team at Watford scoring goals and then Mick called me up.”

A few days after his Portugal bow, Connolly featured in another friendly, as Ireland were defeated 3-1 by Netherlands in Feijenoord Stadion. Little did he know at the time that he would soon end up playing there regularly.

The young striker subsequently started scoring for Ireland — twice in the 1996 US Cup against USA and Mexico, and a hat-trick the following May in McCarthy’s first competitive game in charge against Liechtenstein.

Connolly had played three seasons at senior level for Watford, scoring 10 goals in 26 appearances, but his contract was due to expire. Suddenly, he went from England’s third-tier to the Eredivisie. His team-mates now included Henrik Larsson, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst and Jerzy Dudek. To this day, he is still remembered in Holland, particularly for one game. Aged just 23 and up against footballers of the calibre of Christian Chivu and Rafael van der Vaart, he scored twice in a 4-3 victory — the first time Feyenoord had beaten their arch-rivals away from home in 26 years. At the final whistle, the young Irish international was carried off the pitch on Dudek’s shoulders.

“They were looking for a forward who was on a free,” he recalls. “I had a couple of offers in England or whatever. I took [Feyenoord], because when you played in the stadium, it was incredible. 

“They were playing Champions League football and I never played it again. They had amazing players like Larsson. It was just a completely different world to what I’d come from, you’d be mad [to turn it down]. But I probably wasn’t ready for it then. At the time, they were playing in the Champions League and the year I left, they won the Uefa Cup.”

Source: Feyenoord • Eredivisie Archief/YouTube

Connolly would technically spend four years on the books at Feyenoord, though he ultimately made just 25 league appearances in that time, scoring seven goals. In between there was a season on loan at Wolves, and a particularly prolific loan spell with Excelsior in the Dutch second tier, where he managed a remarkable tally of 42 goals in 48 appearances. Former Netherlands international Adrie Koster, his manager there, who went on to coach a number of other Dutch clubs, including Ajax, still describes the former star as the best striker he ever worked with.

The Irish international was not the only talented striker who found himself out of favour at Feyenoord. Following a contract dispute, the club would ultimately sell the disillusioned Henrik Larsson to Celtic for £650,000.

“They didn’t want him there and they weren’t getting on. I remember talking to him. He was training, but he was never involved. It was just: ‘Oh you know, me and the club have just fallen out.’”

Irish and British players often find life difficult further afield, with homesickness often an issue among young players. However, Connolly says it was never a problem for him, with a number of team-mates perennially making him feel at home.

They were great lads. George Boateng was brilliant, great company. Giovanni van Bronkhurst and his wife would bring me round to dinner and look after me.

“It’s a fantastic country and the people are so welcoming. I still talk to people I met there 20-odd years ago. They couldn’t have done anymore.

“I take my kids there [now], go there for holidays, it’s a great place.”

Connolly, meanwhile, says he always enjoyed a good relationship with McCarthy, who visited him during the striker’s Dutch spell.

“He’s honest and hard working as the day is long. He tells it as it is, which I like. He cuts out all the rubbish. You know exactly where you stand and I really enjoyed playing for him. You could argue with him and stuff, but he’d never really hold anything against you.

“Mick came to stay with me in Holland once. He came to watch me play. I think he had a hotel for the night, but he said: ‘Is there any space at yours?’ ‘Yeah there is, alright.’ I ended up with my national team manager staying on the top floor of my house, which was a bit weird and surreal at the time. But that’s what Mick was like. He wouldn’t stay in a highfalutin hotel or whatever. He gets on well with people.”

With the emergence of exceptional young attackers in Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, Connolly’s starting spot was rarely guaranteed at international level, despite beginning with such a flourish. However, he did feature in all three of Ireland’s crucial play-off ties under McCarthy. He came off the bench and was sent off in defeat to Belgium that ended the team’s hopes of qualifying for the ’98 World Cup. He again featured as a substitute in the first leg and started the second in the absence of the suspended Keane, as Ireland agonisingly went out against Turkey on away goals. And he also completed 90 minutes of the second leg against Iran, when the Boys in Green finally qualified for a major tournament under McCarthy, losing 1-0 on the night but progressing 2-1 on aggregate.

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Yet despite this memorable moment, Connolly still feels a degree of regret that they didn’t achieve more.

“We should have got to at least one more tournament at a minimum,” he says.

Ahead of the tournament, Connolly was enjoying the best spell of his career, at least in terms of goals. 

He had been offered a new contract by Feyenoord, but still got the impression the club weren’t especially keen on him sticking around. Initially, he was set to sign for another Dutch side, AZ Alkmaar. But a phone call from Irish team-mate Kenny Cunningham persuaded him to instead return to English football and join Wimbledon.

His first season at the club in England’s second tier in the lead up to the 2002 World Cup was a success, as he registered 18 goals in 35 appearances, while the following campaign, he would manage 24 in 28. Still though, Connolly knew he was unlikely to start ahead of Duff and Keane at the tournament in Korea and Japan.

We begin discussing that World Cup generally, and unprompted, Connolly brings up what is probably both the best and worst moment in his career.

Having played the Iran match, the attacker was an unused sub in Ireland’s three group games. 

In the last 16, against a Spanish side that included the world-class likes of Iker Casillas, Gaizka Mendieta, Carles Puyol, Raul and Fernando Morientes, Connolly replaced Ian Harte in the 82nd minute with McCarthy’s men trailing 1-0 and desperately needing a goal. A last-gasp Keane penalty brought the game to extra-time and Connolly went desperately close to finding a winner thereafter, as his effort from 20 yards out just went the wrong side of the post.

Ultimately though, Spain prevailed 3-2 on penalties, with Connolly one of three Irish players to miss a spot kick.

When it comes to penalties, it’s just whoever fancies it.

“I wouldn’t say there were loads and loads of people who were putting their hand up to take it, but you live and learn really. The night before I put the penalty in a different place. I changed my mind, over-thought it, and that’s probably the disappointing thing.”

republic-of-ireland-vs-spain Connolly is consoled by Niall Quinn during the 2002 World Cup penalty shootout with Spain. Source: INPHO

Does he deserve credit though, for at least being willing to volunteer to take a spot kick in such a huge game?

“Yes and no. We played Romania in ’97. I got brought down for a penalty. Steve Staunton was on penalties and he sort of said ‘I don’t fancy it.’ I thought: ‘Maybe I’ll have a go at this.’ Then Roy took the ball and he had his kick saved. I remember thinking: ‘That’s someone who’s been at Liverpool and Villa that doesn’t really fancy it.’ Then there’s no shame in that.

“I felt okay to take the penalty [against Spain], but if you miss, you suffer the consequences. It wasn’t a great pen. The night before I banged it in — no ‘keeper would have saved it. But it’s a little bit different when you’re doing it in front of everyone.

“It was tense. It was high pressure. It was a case of what might have been really. Things might have been different if Roy had been there. If you get past Spain and what you’ve got next [South Korea], anything could happen. 

“It’s tinged [with disappointment] because maybe it didn’t go the way you wanted. But I guess when you get older [you realise] it’s life really. It’s Rovers of the Rovers and then there’s a bit of realism there. You’re up against really good players. It’s the best of the best. But I thought the team did brilliantly. It’s a lovely thing to be a part of. But obviously, I should have put the penalty away.”

Without wanting to delve too deeply into the discussed-to-death Saipan debate, I ask Connolly more generally about his most famous, and most infamous team-mate.

“Roy can be brilliant company. He’s got very high standards and all the stuff that we know Roy for. I got on great with Roy. I just put my head down. You had to when you’re with so many good players. You can’t afford to slacken off to keep up with these players. I had to be at it every day. I made sure I was practising, practising in the gym.

With Roy, he was good as gold with me. I didn’t treat Roy any different to anyone else or he to me. He signed me [at Sunderland] and I did quite well — that was a good period for him as a manager too. You could have the best days of your life with Roy and it could obviously go the other way too. I enjoyed my time with him a lot — he was a top, top player.”

Connolly was also one of the few Irish players to visit Keane to say goodbye once it became apparent that he would not be competing in the World Cup and was going home.

“He was only staying in the next room down. You don’t really want him to go. You don’t know the ins and outs of it. Whether that was the right or the wrong thing [to do], I don’t know.

“He’d often borrow a couple of DVDs off me. It probably would’ve been odd if I hadn’t gone to see him. I don’t know if I had an argument like that, would I want someone to come see me. Maybe not, or maybe I wouldn’t really care. But anyway, I was a bit young. It is what it is.”

And does he remember which DVDs Keane borrowed?

“No, jeez I don’t. I don’t think it was ‘Friends,’ or anything like that.”

inpho_00225010 Connolly (third left) pictured with Roy Keane and team-mates during his Sunderland days. Source: Craig Connor/INPHO

Connolly in particular and arguably Ireland in general would never again reach the same heights at international level that they managed in that Spain game.

With Saipan still fresh in people’s mind, McCarthy left not long after the World Cup, departing following a first competitive home loss against the Swiss.

Brian Kerr took over and Ireland still retained an outside chance of qualifying for Euro 2004 right up until the final group game, which was once again against Switzerland.

It was a disappointing performance from the team ultimately. Keane and Connolly started up front, with the latter replaced by Clinton Morrison after 58 minutes amid an anti-climactic 2-0 loss. He describes it as “probably one of my worst games ever” on a day where little went right for the Irish team, after Hakan Yakin gave their opponents the lead just six minutes into the match at St Jakob Park.

It proved to be the last time Connolly would wear a green jersey. He was ignored for the duration of Steve Staunton’s tenure, despite finishing the season as Sunderland’s top scorer and helping them get promoted to the Premier League under Roy Keane.

“That was fine,” he says. “When new people come in, they make their mark. There was no [animosity]. Sometimes you might agree or disagree, but you learn to keep your counsel and get on with it.”

Connolly would go on to play for Southampton, Portsmouth, Oxford and AFC Wimbledon, before retiring in 2015 at the age of 37.

“Giovanni Trapattoni selected me [for his first Ireland squad], but I was injured and had a lot of operations at Sunderland. I was struggling for fitness for a season or two.  So I didn’t get that call back. But I can’t complain really, I ended up with more than I thought I would.”

Perhaps the most controversial moment in Connolly’s Irish career was a high-profile falling out with Don Givens, the caretaker boss in between the McCarthy and Kerr eras. Givens publicly criticised Connolly, with the manager suggesting the player turned down a call-up. However, reflecting on it now, Connolly feels he was unfairly treated.

I don’t lose any sleep over it. I thought it was ridiculous. Everything was done in a terrible manner. It wasn’t done via the club. It was just amateur. That was the biggest frustration, because really the player shouldn’t be in the middle of all that. The Irish manager should be talking to the club about the player. The player’s called up and you don’t have any real relationship with that person, you shouldn’t even be talking to him. It should be done via the official channels. I don’t want to be talking to the manager, getting his opinion on a Saturday night — he should have just talked to my club and they’d deal with it.”

For the most part though, Connolly has fond memories of his Irish career and football in general.

“You’ve definitely got to persevere,” he adds. “When I was playing at Ruislip Gaelic Grounds, there were much better football players than me and they were at the Tottenhams and Arsenals of this world. I was at little Watford.

“You’re told you’re too small, you’re not this, not that. Just persevere. Have a bit of resilience. You might have a couple of setbacks along the way. You’ve just got to keep going, have a bit of determination and really love it. If you want to do it, you’ve got to really love it. If you love it, they say you never work a day, and it’s kind of true.”

- Originally published at 15.00 

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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